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Nick Symmonds, Nike, and The Corporate Sponsorship of Sports

Celia.Huddart at the Olympic Training Center, wearing her favorite Oiselle shorts. She has 3 pairs, because they gave them to her, and they're all she ever wears!

Celia.Huddart at the Olympic Training Center, wearing her favorite Oiselle shorts. She has 3 pairs, because they gave them to her, and they’re all she ever wears!

What Nick Symmonds wears is important. As one of the best in the world at running the 800M, what Nick Symmonds wears is important to his performance and his livliehood. It’s important to his ability to be one of the best, something that he spends a lot of time working on. And it’s important to Brooks, a clothing company that counts on Symmonds’ winning smile to be a brand ambassador for them. All of which he does so well that Nike thinks they should own him outright, now that he COULD be on Team USA. That is, if he was willing to sign a piece of paper saying that he’d no longer be seen wearing Brooks clothing, despite Brooks being the company that supported him to get to this point.

Symmonds doesn’t want to dump Brooks now that he’s achieved what they’ve been working for together. Because Symmonds is not an asshole. Nike? They might be. Or they might see the light. Because Symmonds has brought this all to the mainstream in a big way, by potentially giving up his spot on Team USA, by refusing to give up his right to wear what he wants when he’s not at official team functions.

Go, Nick!

First, let me be REALLY clear. I am all about an athlete’s ability to have sponsors for themselves. Who an athlete is can jibe quite well with what a brand wants to represent, and there is no more obvious partnership for increasing visibility of both brand and athlete. Not to mention that training at the highest level is seriously expensive. Not just in the gear and gym time necessary to be the best, but because it often precludes other, paying, work.

Full disclosure, I have a kid who is circling a spot on Team USA, as an Olympic weightlifter. It is, at this point, her job. In addition to being a full-time high-school student, she easily spends at least 20 hours a week pursuing her goal of a spot on that team. So ya, if someone is willing to at least give her clothes to wear, you bet, she’ll wear them and spread them all over social media. It helps us. (Thanks, Oiselle, you guys are awesome. Your clothes are the best and we LOVE your company!)

At the macro level, Team USA is NOT government funded. (Almost every other country in the world pays at least some of the cost of training their Olympic Team.) And it costs a fortune to train these athletes. They have the best facilities, the best coaches, the best equipment. And someone has to pay for that. Do I think it’s a little bit odd that one of their sponsors is CocaCola? You bet I do. But when my daughter was at the Olympic Training Center, receiving training that money literally cannot buy, did I mind that CocaCola was footing the bill? Not one bit. And I’m guessing that none of the other parents out there minded either. It’s not like they were forced to drink the stuff! (Conversely, however, I don’t mind the message that sometimes you’re allowed to enjoy things that aren’t considered “good” for you. You’re working your ass off, taking care of yourself, if you want a soda as an occasional treat, go for it. I prefer beer, but hey, it’s been a long day.)

So, at every level, who’s gonna pay for the training of these athletes? Corporate sponsors, that’s who. And if you can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars to train, or train your kid, you’ll be damned glad they are. Without sponsors, our elite athletes will only be the ones who have tons of extra money on hand. In a society that is sickly skewed to benefit the already privileged, I’m glad that big corporations jump in and fund this tiny sliver of an American Dream. There is at least some chance that a kid can start with nothing and stand on an Olympic podium, thanks to sponsors.

What is not for sale, however, is the actual body of that athlete. And this is where I think it gets tricky.

Nick Symmonds is sponsored by Brooks, (a company that I personally LOVE, by the way. Their ethics and ethos are spot on.) In order for Brooks to find it worth their investment, Symmonds needs to be awesome, in public, wearing their gear. It’s a small ask, really. Train hard, be cool, be seen, wear our clothes. All stuff that he would do anyway.

But if he can’t be seen in their gear, it doesn’t work.

Nike, meanwhile, sponsors Team USA. So Nike, rightfully, wants Team USA to be photographed wearing Nike when they’re being Team USA. Totally fair.

What happened is that Nick Symmonds asked for clarification of “when” he was on duty for Team USA. He wanted to make sure that if he was “just” training, he could still be photographed wearing Brooks gear. That he could walk around Bejing in his Brooks and post those photos to Instagram. He wanted to be sure that he still had the right to use his body, on his “off” hours as he sees fit, so that he is still able to garner the sponsorships that he needs in order to train at the level that he needs to.

That is no small thing, if being the best is your job, you need someone to pay you to do it!

Yes, being on Team USA then becomes a job, and Nike, in effect, becomes your employer. So yes, when you’re doing official team stuff, that can be considered office hours. But does your employer own you 24/7 and have the right to tell you what to do when you’re not at the office?

When it comes to being seen in a sponsors clothing, there has to be room for both. Unless Nike wants to sponsor Team USA to the point that they are keeping all our athletes clothed all the time and paying them a stipend so that they don’t need to find other ways to supplement the time and money it costs to make them worthy of sponsorship in the first place, then Team USA members have to have the freedom to solicit other sponsors. Wheaties, anyone?

I will add another caveat, one that is more about function than fiscal returns. Footwear and fit. For any athlete, shoes are more than aesthetic. Our feet are all different, and they are literally the foundation on which all of our movement takes place. If a shoe doesn’t fit a foot right, function will suffer. I’m a coach to hundreds, the mother of an athlete (and not a terrible athlete myself.) I can tell you that no two feet are the same, and as such, no one shoe works for everyone. My daughter and I both lift. She will ONLY wear Nike Romaleos. (Thankfully, they sponsor the USA Weightlifting team!) She has tried every lifting shoe made, that’s the one that works for her foot. I, on the other hand, will only wear the fat-toed, wood-heeled old-school Pendlay lifting shoes. If she were forced to compete in my shoes, and me in hers, our performances would suffer. Our bodies might suffer.

Last year, when Reebok insisted that everyone in the CrossFit Games wear their shoes, Celia joked that she just wouldn’t compete. She “cant” wear their shoes. And although it may seem like a win for Reebok at the time – when they see everyone competing in their shoes at the Games – it’s hysterical when, immediately following the Games, all the athletes are selling their Reebok shoes for cheap because they were only worn once.

I think that any sponsor who genuinely cares about athletes will allow athletes a little leeway in two key places: performance and free time.

It is not a “win” for Nike or Reebok or Brooks or anyone else if they insist on making an athlete wear a piece of gear that impedes their performance. Shoes can do that. Make them wear the shirts and shorts, but if the shoes don’t fit an athlete’s unique foot, don’t do it. For that matter, let them alter things to work. We’re in the process of shortening all of Celia’s singlets, because she hates having anything on her legs. She hates wearing anything other than booty shorts.

And when it comes to training and non-official functions, let them wear whatever they want. That’s their time. They don’t work for you 24/7. At that point, you cease to be a sponsor, and become a master.

Yes, athletes, events and sponsors all need each other. But it needs to be a relationship that elevates everyone, not hamstrings them. You are a sponsor, not a master. So when you’re asking yourself if you should try to control every waking moment of an athlete’s life in order to maximize your investment while making it impossible for them to make a living and thrive, I think the answer is obvious: Just Don’t Do It.

We need each other. Let’s play nice.


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